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Social Capital and The Lack Thereof

Posted on the 22 August 2015 by Paul Phillips @sparkingtheleft

Graduates walking towards future

I have been watching the PBS NewsHour these past few days to see their week long segment on one of the biggest problems facing American higher education today, namely, the lack of success by incoming students from lower-income households. Here’s the introduction:

More students are enrolling in college, but the percent of students who actually earn a college credential by the age of 24 has only increased significantly for families with the highest household incomes. Between 1970 and 2013, the percent of students earning college credentials from families with incomes in the top quarter of all household rose from 40 to 77 percent.

For students from families in the lowest quarter of all households, attainment of a college credential rose from 6 to just 9 percent.

So why is this occurring if the intelligence and academic proclivity of the two groups are equal through other indicators? In my analysis of the report, it is a lack of what academics call “social capital.”

Let’s have a proper definition here from Comer, 2015.

   I understand social capital as the relationships, norms, and trust acquired in meaningful networks that provide individuals and groups with the capacities to gain the training and tools, or human capital, necessary to participate in the economic and related mainstream of our society. Such participation provides productive and economic benefits to individuals; and/or social and human capital for the society (Putnam 1993, 1995; Coleman 1988; Woolcock 1998).

And to provide a little more accessible illumination of social capital’s nature:

   Individuals acquire social capital in the social and economic networks around them–family and friends, kin and meaningful contacts of the family network; the networks of school and work; economic and governance networks at all levels. Positive interactions with knowledgeable and meaningful family or caretakers in mainstream cultural environments at home facilitate the acquisition of social capital needed for school success (Comer, 2004). Reasonable economic wellbeing makes positive interactions more possible.

In Comer, 2015, he provides an autobiographical sketch that shows how he, coming from a low-income household in an economically-depressed area of Chicago, attained his social capital.

He speaks of how his mother was the housekeeper for some of the most affluent Chicago residents of the time. She would blend in through imitation the best way she could despite her lack of education (she only had 2 years of formal instruction), and Comer’s Father was a Baptist minister respected in the underdeveloped community that he resided in.

So he would have play dates at the affluent employers’ homes and would be taken to places such as museums, baseball games, and travel with social organizations through the Church and school sponsored groups.

So with his mother’s social capital gained through her employment, and his father’s provided by his position in the community, came the ability to pass it on to their children. They were taught through imitation of these other affluent peers and adults how to behave and what to like and do. They adopted much of their culture.

And as for the economic benefits of this social capital, K. Mahmood, 2015, lists that it influences career success (Burt, 1992, and Gabbay and Zuckerman, 1998) and facilitates in finding jobs (Lin and Dumin, 1996). So who you know, and who you’re like, is just as important as what you know.


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